Popof on Old History, New Albums, and Life as a French Tekno Vagabond
"French authorities were, and are still, not fond of rave parties—so I guess it was our way of defying the system."
Alexandre Paounov, well known as Popof, has been a pioneer of dance music for almost two decades. Popof didn't always make the music he makes today though, and understandably so—it didn't exist. His beginnings as a DJ started in 1996, soon after helping found the pillars of France's underground dance music with the Heretik System. Back then, he was producing "this sort of mental, hard techno" music, which soon became the soundtrack to French cultural and political movements—ones that Popof was very much a part of.
The Heretik System was the foundation behind Popof's career. "We were all dedicated to the same thing—which was to party freely to the music we loved," says Popof. The Heretik System included artists like Noisebuilder, Jano, Beuns, and KRS along with numerous others. "So, after a while, we decided to set up a sound system and to name it 'Heretik,' in order to organize our own parties."
Part of the legend that surrounds the Heretik System are the free parties they threw—with and without the authorities permission. Trying to avoid legal prosecution for trespassing and drug possession in the process was a regular struggle, with police seizing and burning their records on occasion.
Living together in the south-west of Paris in the late 90s, the Heretik System became a hub for techno music and liberalism. But it was the tragic suicide of one of the founding members along with the accidental death of numerous others in the Heretik System in 1998 that bonded the group more than ever before. Displayed in Damien Raclot-Dauliac's documentary, Heretik—We Had A Dream, the System proved to their community and the police that they would not let their names disappear in vain; the tragedy led to some of the most legendaries free parties in dance music history.
The illegal raves amassed thousands of people at Bercy freight station in 1999 and in 2001 at the PiscineMolitor swimming pool, respectively in one of the most affluent areas of downtown Paris. Similar to collectives like Britain's Spiral Tribe from the early 90s, the raves irked French authorities consistently for years. Featuring makeshift hardware set-ups powered by old generators, the Heretik System was self-sufficient—selling their own records on their own labels to fund their large free-parties called teknivals.
Popof says the political aspect of the System came later and was mainly a fight for their rights—their right to party. "French authorities were, and are still, not fond of rave parties, so I guess it was our way of defying the system," he says. By living outside the societal norms, fighting against capitalism, and struggling against established conformity, the Heretik System ironically drove themselves into the realms of public consciousness. "On the legal side, nothing existed yet to counterbalance our actions," Popof tells THUMP. "It made it possible for us to use incredible places such as the Molitor swimming pool or the Bercy freight station—without any authorization or permit whatsoever." Moreover, the parties took place without any acts of criminal violence, theft, or property damage, sending the message that the Heretik System had been aiming at all along.
Although Popof is no longer a player in the free-party movement, the Heretik System still exists, somewhere circulating through parts of Europe and North America. Part of that departure was an alteration in Popof's musical tempo. "We all shared the same ideology and this allowed us to come up with a few memorable events," says Popof. "Also, I honestly think that Heretik is first and foremost a family, before being a sound system."
It was after Popof's single, "Alcoolic," released in 2007, that he says he began to gain attention in the international dance music scene. Remixes, singles, and a few crucial EPs followed, resulting in the eventual signing to Sven Väth's legendary Cocoon records. "The transition took place very naturally—my way of producing evolved, so did my musical orientation and inspiration," says Popof. "Honestly, I never told myself, 'hey, let's do this or that now.' It simply occurred, in accordance to what I felt like doing at the time and that is still what I do today."
It is on Form—Popof's own record label, which he created in 2008—that he expresses his own musical preferences and spreads those perceptions of others. "The goal was to create a bridge, in order to help young producers making a name for themselves," says Popof. "With years, my label's musical direction has been in constant evolution, because it is aligned on my own tastes' evolution." Since then, the label has thrown showcase parties from BPM to Tokyo—playing alongside names like Adam Beyer and Steve Lawler—totally excluding the notion of genre-labels or cultural boundaries in the process.
Form has produced such a wide variety of electronic music that it is tough to place limitations on the imprint. "I do not base my choices on a precise style, but more on a feeling," says Popof, authenticating its goal of liberal music production in the process. That same open-minded attitude has led Popof to where he is today. His latest single on Hot Creations, "Words Gone," resides on the chilled-out side of the spectrum—far, far away from the aggressive techno he was once famed for in France.
"Words Gone," featuring vocals by Arno Joey, is the first track off his new album Love Somebody, which is set to be released on June 29. "The vibe behind this album, is much more chilled-out, relaxed, with lots of minimal house/deep sounds," he says. "I was in the middle of a deep house phase and this is what I wanted to do at the time." Not exactly fitting for the club-ready techno Vath's Cocoon is famous for, Popof says Jamie Jones' Hot Creations was willing to release the album. However, Popof wasted no time in elevating the status of his already popular single—he has enlisted the services of Marc Houle, Jamie Jones, and Luciano to remix, "Words Gone."
Further expanding the spectrum upon which his music rests. "[They] are great artists, and great persons," he says. "I've always liked their music so for me asking them for a remix was the next logical step." It might be different, but that album is going to another spotlight on the long and winding road for one of Paris' finest and most storied exports.
Originally published on Thump.